To Your Corporate Health

President Bush's drive to get himself re-elected and electroshock the economy back to life took a new turn last week as Congress, in a heralded display of "bipartisan" politics, embraced a scheme to pay for drugs under Medicare. The idea is for the elderly to pay up to half the cost of drugs in a complicated program that would cost $400 billion. The government would pay the money to the pharmaceutical industry, which would conduct the program.

"It's a traditional contortionist effort to try to show you're doing something when the real agenda is to protect corporate drug interests," said David Himmelstein of Physicians for a National Health Program. "Bush wants to do it though private drug-management firms that take a big cut of anything before giving any benefits. Most seniors still wouldn't be able to afford drugs, prices would still be high, and they'd be spending a large chunk of federal money to do this."

There is another problem, as Congressional Quarterly points out, that could end up hurting the elderly. Should the government program appear to be too generous, corporations may drop altogether the drug coverage in their medical plans. Corporations currently are cutting back on these costly programs. A December 2002 study from Kaiser Family Associates and Hewitt Associates shows that 13 percent of companies dropped drug coverage over the last couple of years, and 44 percent required employees to increase their share of the cost. The AFL-CIO argues that workers who took wage concessions in labor negotiations so as to get drug coverage once they retired will get screwed.

So in some respects, politicians who are coming to the rescue of the needy elderly actually are just rewarding the pharmaceutical giants, which always have been generous campaign givers, with yet another giant economic boondoggle.

Meanwhile, it turns out that getting our hands on Iraqi oil isn't going to provide us with needed future energy supplies. Now we've got to have more natural gas. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve system, told a congressional committee last week that he was worried soaring natural gas prices would contribute to the "erosion" of the economy. Natural gas is a more or less clean fuel in great demand by industry to help it meet air pollution standards. Greenspan urges the U.S. to import more gas as a "safety valve" in case domestic production can't do the job. That means building more terminals for liquefied-natural-gas tankers hauling gas in its frozen form from the Caspian Sea area and from Australia, Indonesia, and the Russian Far East.

Greenspan also said, "I do think an overall policy of energy cannot dismiss the issue of nuclear power." This vague statement was immediately taken by nuclear proponents on Capitol Hill as Greenspan's endorsement for more nuke plants. Nuclear power was basically discarded in this country in the late 1970s after the Three Mile Island accident. It always has been more expensive than coal and viewed as both dangerous and controversial, if only because of the nightmarish quandary over what to do about radioactive waste.

WHIMPER OF MASS DESTRUCTION

A group of some 36 backbenchers in the House of Representatives is getting set to force the Republican leadership to take a stand on the continuing controversy over whether weapons of mass destruction exist in Iraq.

The House members, led by Democratic presidential long shot Dennis Kucinich, will submit "a resolution of inquiry" to the International Relations Committee, requesting that Bush turn over within 14 days "documents or other materials in the President's possession that provide specific evidence" in 10 instances where Bush, VP Cheney, or Defense Secretary Rumsfeld claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. These include Cheney's August 2002 assertion that "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction"—a claim reiterated by Bush in September at the UN and in October at a speech in Cincinnati, along with further claims by Cheney and Rumsfeld. The latter said on March 24, with much assurance, "We have seen intelligence over many months that they have chemical and biological weapons, and that they have dispersed them and that they're weaponized and that, in one case at least, the command and control arrangements have been established."

The resolution amounts to a subpoena to the president by Congress. An arcane feature of the House rules, it has been used infrequently, once in 1980 in an attempt to elicit facts relating to President Jimmy Carter's brother Billy and his dealings with the Bolivian government, and once under Clinton in connection with the White House travel-office scandal. It seeks facts and nothing else.

A majority vote by the committee would put the resolution on the House floor. Either in the panel or on the floor, the GOP leadership will without doubt move to quash it. In doing so, the Democrats reason, the Republican leadership will not only be carrying forward the White House cover-up, but will be putting itself on record in backing the cover-up, a step that conceivably could have repercussions in next year's elections.

JUSTICE IS SERVED

The saga of how Washington's federal civil service struggles to keep on keeping on grows more and more bizarre. First there was the unpleasantly rough toilet paper in the EPA executive rest rooms. Next, a foul smell from the vents sent employees gagging into the hallways. Apparently someone had urinated into the air conditioning system.

Earlier this year there were reports of executive jostling in Tommy Thompson's Health and Human Services Department over who gets to go into the protective bunker built for the high command should a terrorist seed the place with anthrax or some other chemical. And now comes a carefully coded but critical GAO report on the functioning of the HHS inspector general. Her name is Janet Rehnquist, daughter of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist. Among other things, her fellow employees raised questions because Rehnquist "obtained a firearm" from a deputized agent in her office without proper credentials. The underling who gave her the gun did so "because she did not want the Inspector General to have any difficulty gaining access to secured areas in the event of a terrorist incident."

In March, Janet Rehnquist announced that she was quitting, effective June 1. The GAO report was finally released last week.

ACCOUNTING PRINCIPLES

"This is complete garbage," Scott Sullivan, WorldCom chief financial officer, told an employee who had dared to prepare a budget containing actual costs and adjustments. "What am I supposed to do with this? What have we been doing for the last six months? This is a real work of trash."

The brave employee was an exception to the rule. Most of WorldCom's accounting people in Clinton, Mississippi, and elsewhere around the country buried their heads in the sand while the company racked up fraud after fraud. From 1999 to 2002, WorldCom, in the words of the company's own investigatory committee, "suffered one of the largest public company accounting frauds in history."

In one case, when an employee found a big discrepancy and tried to ask Buford "Buddy" Yates, the company's director of general accounting, about it, Yates snapped, "Show those numbers to the damn auditors and I'll throw you out the fucking window."

Sullivan faces federal fraud charges and is free on $10 million bond. He denies any wrongdoing. Ex-CEO Bernard J. Ebbers has yet to be charged, and Yates pleaded guilty and is helping federal prosecutors.

Additional reporting: Phoebe St John and Joanna Khenkine.
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